Hippolytus Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How do Aphrodite, Artemis, and Phaedra each contribute to the death of Hippolytus?

    Suggested Response: Hippolytus’ worship of Artemis to the exclusion of Aphrodite angers the goddess of love, and she punishes him by causing Phaedra (his stepmother) to fall in love with him. After he rejects Phaedra, she commits suicide, but not before writing a suicide note addressed to Theseus, accusing Hippolytus of raping her. In anger, Theseus calls on one of his curses from Poseidon in order to kill his son. Although Artemis does not directly contribute to the death of Hippolytus, her refusal to flout the laws of the gods and save her favorite ensures his death.

  2. 2

    Discuss the relationship between gods and humans and explain their responsibilities to each other.

    Suggested Response: As Euripides depicts it, the relationship between gods and humans seems tenuous at best. The gods seem to use men as their playthings, enacting strife between the gods through human surrogates. In turn, humans seem to worship the gods both out of piety and out of a desire to placate them and avoid incurring their wrath. Each has few responsibilities to each other. Humans must revere and celebrate the gods, while the gods are free of the burden of protecting men.

  3. 3

    What is the role of the chorus and how does it function within the play?

    Suggested Response: In Hippolytus, the chorus consists of women living in Troezen. Present for most of the play’s action, the chorus becomes an unwitting confidante of Phaedra, and, privy to this additional information, the chorus attempts to dissuade Theseus from enacting his wrath against Hippolytus. However, the women must abide by an oath of silence that prevents them from fully explaining Phaedra’s lust and suicide. The chorus fulfills its traditional role of providing context, continuity, and commentary on the action of the play. The women frequently comment on the thematic elements of the play, bemoaning the horrific power that love wields and alluding to other incidents of tragic love affairs or godly feuds.

  4. 4

    Explain why Hippolytus lives in Troezen.

    Suggested Response: Hippolytus is Theseus’ son by his former mistress, the Amazon Antiope (or in other sources Hippolyte), and Hippolytus is consequently illegitimate. When Theseus married Phaedra, he sent his son to grow up in Troezen by Pittheus, the boy’s great-grandfather. Theseus hoped that Hippolytus would then inherit the throne of Troezen upon Pittheus’ death, while his legitimate children by Phaedra would rule over Athens. This would, he hoped, prevent strife between his children over their inheritance.

  5. 5

    How does Euripides characterize Aphrodite and the nature of erotic love?

    Suggested Response: Euripides depicts Aphrodite as a terrifying and vengeful deity. She sees the world’s people as her subjects and does not tolerate it when mortals dishonor her. When Hippolytus refuses to accord her the proper respect, she concocts a plan to exact revenge. Though she appears only in the prologue, the goddess of love essentially masterminds the whole plot, setting in motion the events of play in her quest for vengeance. Euripides depicts love itself as a consuming and destructive force. We need only look at Phaedra and the degree to which her love for Hippolytus pulls her from her natural course in order to see the malevolent power of erotic love.

  6. 6

    Analyze the conflict between lust and chastity in the play.

    Suggested Response: Lust and continence are central thematic elements of Hippolytus, and we can see the play as an ideological struggle between these two approaches to sexuality. Euripides frames the action of the play with a prologue, spoken by Aphrodite, and an epilogue, spoken by Artemis. The feud between Aphrodite and Artemis becomes an allegorical representation of the conflict between lust and continence, and during the action of the play, humans play out this conflict, in the form of Phaedra (lust) and Hippolytus (chastity). Although we can easily imagine that with these allegorical representations, the play might dissolve into moral commentary, but Euripides resists. Instead, he depicts both Phaedra’s illicit desire and Hippolytus’ ostentatious purity as monstrous and a perversion of the natural order.

  7. 7

    Discuss Euripides’ portrayal of women in the play.

    Suggested Response: Although Aristophanes accused Euripides of portraying only perverse or monstrous women on the stage, Euripides has a clear interest in women and their role in Greek society. From Phaedra’s first appearance, we can see that she and not Hippolytus is the play’s central character and that Euripides is deeply concerned with the development of her character. He grants her character interiority that he denies to Hippolytus and Theseus, as we can see in her nuanced defense of her actions. She describes her own motives with perfect clarity, first explaining her resolution to remain silent and then her determination to die. This sequence demonstrates Phaedra’s psychological self-awareness.

  8. 8

    How would a fifth-century Athenian audience have reacted to Hippolytus’ devotion to Artemis and his vow of chastity?

    Suggested Response: A fifth-century Athenian audience would have seen Hippolytus’ devotion to Artemis and his vow of chastity as a violation of his religious and familial duties, as well as a perversion of contemporary sexual practices. Humans were expected to worship all of the gods, and while a patron deity would not have been uncommon, exclusive worship of a single deity was considered a religious transgression. Hippolytus’ insistence on remaining a virgin was similarly perverse. Sexuality was an essential element of daily live in fifth-century Athens, and as a prince, Hippolytus would have been expected to reproduce in order to continue the ruling line of his father.

  9. 9

    Analyze the role of theater in Athenian culture.

    Suggested Response: Theater played a central role in Athenian cultural identity. Each year during the spring, 15,000 people would gather at the Theater of Dionysus to celebrate the City Dionysia, a festival in honor of the god Dionysus. Drama featured heavily in the celebrations with three tragedians performing a tetralogy of plays, three tragedies and a satyr play, for the Athenian audience. A jury of citizens would determine the winner of the competition. The festival had both religious and civic purposes as both a celebration of Dionysus and a celebration of Athenian culture, with embassies from other regions in attendance.

  10. 10

    Examine the development of Euripides’ treatment of the Hippolytus myth.

    Suggested Response: Euripides twice treated the Hippolytus myth in dramatic form, which was unusual for a Greek tragedian. In fact, this is the only known instance of a Greek dramatist composing two tragedies on the same mythic source. His first treatment, entitled Hippolytos Kalyptomenos (Hippolytus Veiled), met the disfavor of Athenian audiences. This version of the myth portrayed Phaedra as a sexually voracious woman who directly propositions Hippolytus. Athenian audiences probably found Euripides’ portrayal of illicit female desire to be offensive. The extant dramatization, titled Hippolytos Stephanophoros (Hippolytus Crowned) or simply Hippolytus, is generally believed to have corrected the characterizations that made the first version so unpopular. In this version, both Phaedra and Hippolytus remain chaste and share some of the responsibility for their tragic fates. Athenian audiences responded more positively to this reworked version of the Hippolytus myth, which was first performed for the City Dionysia in 428 B.C.E. and won first prize.